And so, on a snowy winter evening on eastern Long Island I stumbled into a dojo and for more than a year I strained and groaned my way through full-contact sparring, bumps on the head, bruises and tongue lashings about how karate would make me a man. One day a black belt opened a gash on the forehead of a much smaller brown belt. The next day I quit. I would either get myself maimed, or I would disfigure someone else. Neither possibility appealed to me.
Several months had passed when I heard about Ohima. The karate system had split into two separate schools, one following Ohima (and hence the Old Master, Nakahima), the other—mine—adhering to the full-contact approach. A guy I knew was working out in Ohima's school and talked me into coming with him to watch a class.
Ohima moved with the controlled power of a caged tiger, and taught by example with calmness and patience. He was a small man whose strength seemed understated. After class I talked to him and told him why I had quit karate.
"People who come into the dojo see many things," he said. "Maybe they think karate will make them tough street fighters; but ones who stay, who study for long time, are interested in something else. I believe true understanding of yourself is possible, but that takes very long. A karate teacher has great responsibility. He can turn out students who are animals, who want to fight, or he can teach so that his students will find the inner peace that I believe exists in true karate. This instructor's students will do all they can to avoid violence, because they will learn true dignity which, of course, must extend to all men...but to teach this is very hard."
Late that night I called my friend Mike and told him about Ohima. We decided to study with him and earn our black belts. For the next three years we worked out constantly. We would sit and talk with Ohima until the early hours of the morning, listening while he spoke about karate training, about the importance of practicing kata, until, one day, if we trained long and hard enough, we would reach "mu-shin," the ego-less state of mind that knows no fear of failure or of death, and the kata would perform itself. He was a man of unsurpassed skill in his art. He followed Nakahima, his master, and when Ohima decided to return home, Mike and I followed.
Three days after the disturbing black belts' meetings, we told Ohima that his promises of open arms and true spiritual development had been empty, that we had had enough. He asked us to remain, and we didn't have the heart to refuse. So we stayed a while longer in the heat, among unfriendly people, working out harder than before and drinking with Ohima more than ever, until one night, in a tiny bar on a nameless street, he began talking earnestly to his fist, and refused to let us take him home. About a week after that our money ran out. With nothing left but a plane ticket, we departed from Okinawa for good.
There were happy things, though, to remember about the trip: the day I hit the jackpot on the one-arm bandit at the Seaman's Club; the sushi man who used to slip us extra slices of our favorite fish; and the old lady from South Carolina—called to Okinawa by her Baha'i faith. We once showed up at her door, numb from working out, bug-eyed from the heat and on the brink of desperation. "Why you boys," she said, grinning, "you're nothing but a couple of karate bums who won't ever come to any good." Then she made us sandwiches and iced tea while we sat in front of her fan, just breathing. I still have a photo of her with her dog, scolding us with an uplifted finger.
Ohima returned to America some months after we did, but he had changed. I guess we had, too. He took to meditating a great deal, and he began drinking again. Our late-night talks grew hollow. I saw students improve markedly in karate but remain the same outside the school, the human heart being harder to change than the body.
In karate technique, Ohima was the best I'd ever seen and, still, with all his speed and strength, he remained a peaceful man, true to the words he'd spoken to me when I met him. But to grow, I could no longer follow him. Mike and I stayed to earn our black belts, and having reached that small personal goal, we both moved on.
From time to time I still slip into my Gi and work out and for an hour or so I drift back into the world of the elusive kata. Sometimes, the moves begin to flow, one into the other, like carefully wrought parts of a precision machine, and the beauty of the art appears. Then I think of the steaming nights in Naha, my forlorn teacher talking to his fist, and the words of Miyamoto Musashi, a renowned 17th-century Japanese swordsman, tacked to the wall of Nakahima's dojo: "Pay your respects to the Gods and Buddhas, but never rely on them."